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Interviewing Diamondbacks pitching prospect Riley Smith

Smith is an under-the-radar pitching prospect who has worked from a mid Day 3 selection to on the doorstep to the Major Leagues in less than four years.

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Riley Smith was a 24th round selection by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2016 Draft, but has steadily worked his way up one level a year in the system. Smith profiles more as a bottom of the rotation arm who works quickly, limits free passes, and keeps most of his contact on the ground. Since going pro, he’s been a reliable workhorse starter in the upper minors with 151 13 and 134 innings over the last two years with Visalia, Jackson, and Reno. The team rewarded his efforts by adding him to the 40-man roster in advance of the Rule 5 Draft.

After a dominant half-season with AA Jackson that included a 2.27 ERA and a 62/16 K/BB ratio in 71 23 innings over 13 starts, the D-backs promoted Smith to AAA Reno. He had experienced a velocity drop from his junior year in high school until his year with Visalia, but a mechanical tweak allowed him to regain that velocity and turn him into an under-the-radar rotation prospect. After his promotion, Smith hit a bit of a speed bump in Reno and the Pacific Coast League in general. In 12 starts with AAA Reno, Smith got hit hard to the tune of a 6.89 ERA with 15 home runs surrendered and a 48/20 K/BB in 62 13 innings. Reno production has to be taken with a massive grain of salt, since the elevation and wind make the park one of the five worst environments for pitchers.

Overall Smith features a fastball that sits low 90s and can reach back for 95-96, a mid 80s slider and a mid 80s change-up. His change-up is the most effective secondary pitch, although he’s made strides with the slider last year. His delivery is a fast tempo, but is also very smooth and repeatable. He lives mostly down and away to hitters, which has helped him produce solid ground ball rates (~50%) and keep the ball in the park. Since an arm injury in his junior year at LSU, Smith has been a clean bill of health for the past three years and accumulating nearly 400 innings over that time period. He profiles more as a back of the rotation (#4/5 starter) due to the lack of a plus offering, but has shown to be a reliable workhorse starter who can eat up a lot of innings. At the MLB level, he could wind up as a Mike Leake/Merrill Kelly type pitcher who puts up 180+ innings with league-average run prevention metrics with little fanfare.

Going into 2020, Smith was part of the big league camp as a member of the 40-man roster. He appeared in just one game, allowing 1 run on 2 innings with 2 strikeouts and no walks, before being optioned to AAA just four days before baseball shut down due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Alongside Taylor Widener and Jon Duplantier, Smith is one of the team’s AAA depth options they can call up to fill in the rotation or a long man role in the bullpen if either unit is affected by injuries and/or bad performances. In previous years he would have been a likely September call-up, but with rosters restricted to teams only being able to add one additional pitcher to the active roster Smith may have to wait until next year to debut.

Impressions from first big league camp

“I had a really good time. When you come into a big league camp, you’re obviously disassociated from the big leaguers who have been there before because you haven’t played with them yet. It takes a little bit for them to know that you’re serious, that you’re supposed to be there and these guys were very welcoming. They really did a good job of making easy, simple, and making you feel like you’re supposed to be there. I had a great time, it was a great experience.”

Thoughts on the amount of technology in the game today

“There are so many things that go into pitching and it’s always based off of feel, but if you can slow stuff down and why it’s doing certain things, it can be a tool. If you use too much or if you’re a guy who doesn’t like it, it can go both ways. I personally don’t care either way, if it helps me then I’ll use it and if it hurts me then I won’t. I haven’t seen anything that it could negatively do to my pitching aspects, so I’m for whatever information I can obtain.”

The adjustment from a pitcher-friendly environment in AA to the exact opposite in AAA

“You honestly have to let your ego set aside. You’re going to give up runs, home runs, you’re going to get hit around. If you make your pitches and even if the guy hits the ball out of the park on a wind-aided home run, sure you don’t like to give up a home run, but you know that you executed that pitch. As long as you are taking care of yourself and keeping your head straight, you’re good. Numbers there aren’t very important, just make sure you are pitching good and the ball feels good coming out of your hand. That’s all I think you focus on.”

How pitching in Reno can prepare him for pitching in the Majors, especially when visiting Colorado

“Of course, even then pitching in Reno is the closest thing to pitching in the big leagues that you have. You’re trying to pitch the best that you can and then other ballparks play different all over the country, it definitely prepares you to not be surprised when balls get out that you don’t would get out because it’s going to happen at Coors Field for sure. It’s just a part of the time.”

How much preparation goes into each start

“The most you can without killing yourself. Everything is set on a schedule. I was talking with my family, I’m back home during all this and I’m not supposed to be here, it’s throwing me off. You’re trying to get everything planned out because as a starting pitcher you’re living every fifth day. My preparation starts from the very night after I pitch, it starts over. I pitch, I go home, preparation starts over again over the next five days. It’s not a day before type thing, you prepare all offseason for every start this season. You do the same thing over and over again, you create a routine, and if it’s not working you change it up a little bit. If it is working, you keep doing it. You take it every five days, day to day.

Adapting against a hitter’s strengths and weakness

“Obviously you play into that, but you also don’t go away from your strengths. If your strengths will beat them, then you stick to them. If their strengths play into your strengths, they can hit what you throw very well, you try to exploit their weaknesses. It’s a game plan, you stay within yourself, if you get out of yourself you can put yourself in a bind. You try to stay within your bearings and what you can do while trying to exploit their weaknesses as well.

Being able to consistently pitch deep into starts

“You can ask any of any of the guys that I’ve pitched for, pitching coaches, I never want to be taken out of the game. I feel like my job is to go out there and pitch as deep as I can in ball games because bullpens get eaten up all the time. They have a hard job of having to throw every single day, so any chance I can give them a break and obviously it helps me if I can throw deep into a game then I’m all for it. I love throwing a lot of innings and I pride myself in my training in the off-season to get built up to prepare to throw hopefully in the future 220 innings a year.”

Pitching with shifts

“They say that you’re not supposed to pitch differently to a shift. They’re exploiting their weaknesses with your strengths. It’s frustrating because sometimes the shift gets beat and that’s all you can remember but you don’t about the times that it didn’t get beat, that it actually helped you. If they think it works and that’s their game plan, then I’m cool with it, just pitch the way I pitch and figure it out from there.

Waiting for baseball to resume

“Every day I wake up and go to the gym. I workout, I throw, and get all of my baseball stuff done then I go home. I’m currently helping my parents build a house. You just wait it out and since you’re ready to go at any point because it could end in a couple weeks or it could end in a month, you never really know. Just be on standby and make sure your arm is in good shape, be ready to go, but I plan it being done pretty soon and back to Arizona for whatever happens next.”

“I don’t know how everyone is taking it, but there’s a lot to be said about throwing a lot of innings consistently two or three years in a row. I think it helps your body know what it’s supposed to be doing. I took five or six days off, knowing we wouldn’t be back for a few weeks. So I’m building back up to be able to throw innings and hopefully in the next couple weeks I’ll be back. If it’s here pitching indoor to some kid from the area to get my work in, then that’s fine. I’m going to try to stay as close to a five-day schedule pitching regimen as I was when I left Spring to continue on.

Off-season activities

“In the off-season, I’m constantly hunting and fishing with my family. Where I’m from, we do it every day and it happens a lot. We enjoy being outdoors and being able to share that love together.”

You can listen to the full audio interview down below.

The AZ Snake Pit wishes Riley Smith good luck for the 2020 season and beyond. We should see him in a D-backs uniform within the next two years, with a more extended look in 2021. From the interview, Smith has a really solid attitude and mindset necessary to endure Reno and waiting for an opportunity to pitch in the majors. It’s obviously no surprise given that he’s already beaten the odds for a 24th round pick that’s worked hard enough to land a 40-man roster spot in after just 3 full seasons.

You can follow Riley Smith on Twitter @rileywade2013 and on Instagram at @rileywade.